100 Refutations: Genesis 4*

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Before the invention of murder there was Cain and Abel, and they were both brothers, and they were both black.  

This is how they tell it in El Chocó, Colombia.

We don’t know the specifics of the story, but we know enough, and it’s not hard to fill in the rest. Abel was the good one, Cain the bad.

El Chocó is a land of endless rain, green mist, and the thunder of eternal drums. And it was once home only to the Kunas, the Wounaan, and the Emberás—the native nations of pre-Columbian Colombia.

Maybe Abel always visited his mother on Sundays. Maybe he would set down a plate of silver-scaled fish beside the toothless man in the town square who sat mumbling to himself. Maybe he spent his whole life stitching black wings back on broken birds. And maybe Cain would cheat at cards, never pay back borrowed money. Maybe he liked to pluck the sutures out of wing-stitched birds and ensnare animals with steel-cut traps. We do not know, we only guess. What is important is that they were brothers—one good, one bad, both black. Black like their mother, like their father. Black like toucan wings, like the God who made them.

After the colonies were established, however, El Chocó also became the home of independent Cimarrones—men and women brought over from Africa in the rotten bellies of European ships who broke their chains and built themselves a city where they knew few would follow. A city of green mist, ancient rain, and suffocating heat.

Cain was a little older, probably. But not by much. Maybe they were twins. Or maybe Abel was one of those slow-to-come siblings who waited seven years before stitching up a body inside Eve’s womb, beside her liver, below her heart. Maybe Abel was easy to kill.

And there, away from the masters and the mines, away from backs being whipped, from arms being twisted and mouths being filled with dirt. There, in that town they built on river clay and stilts, they started telling their stories freely again.

It’s possible they were both only children when it happened. Or when it started. When Cain began drinking, began stealing, began poking with a sharpened stick the animals he’d trapped. The snap of steel teeth and an ocelot wailing while Cain dug his heel into the base of the animal’s skull, thinking that being able to do something is both reason and permission to do it.

They began telling the old stories alongside the new. Words like contraband, words whispered like prayers, and prayers like laws issued from podiums. And somewhere along the line the Chocó heat made them melt in the Cimarrones’ hands. Stories from here, from there—half what was said about them and half what they had to say about themselves. Stories made of brown river clay and strolling high on splintered stilts. African lullabies and Spanish bibles. The Virgin Mary riding an elephant to Bethlehem while an ocelot sleeps on her lap.

First times are clumsy affairs. Practiced and longed for as they may be, a person is not a dog, is not a rabbit, is not a deer tugging on a half-torn leg caught between the razor teeth of Cain’s trap. It takes patience to stalk in plain sight, to walk up with a smile and say “Abel, my brother. Come here.” Effort to turn one’s open arms into a triggered vice, the ability to notice in Abel’s eyes the recognition of his own intentions, and the wherewithal to reach for a rock and bring it crashing down against his brother’s skull as he pulls away and tries to run. Then it doesn’t take anything at all. Not for Cain, at least, to keep raising that stone and bringing it down, raising it up again, and then down again too.

Then they started telling those stories their own way. Free in a palenque, beside a fire, beneath the rain, “There were once two brothers, called Cain and Abel.”

Maybe Eve was the one to find him—her son in a pool of blood. Limbs bent, skull cracked, red-wax flesh beneath a dark cloud of fat flies. But maybe Cain was smarter than that. Maybe he hid the body—dug a ditch, got a boat. “String and stones and a brother’s crushed bones.” Maybe no one noticed at first. Abel could have been hunting, could have been fishing, could have been gone a few days before anyone suspected. Maybe Cain regretted how it had all gone, would have much preferred to see his brother caught between the razor teeth of a fine-tooth trap. Maybe he would have taken it back if he could have. Maybe not. Maybe it took God striking like lightning and coming down like thunder to make Cain wonder.

This is how they tell it in El Chocó.

God coming down from a cloud, from a tree, from the top of a red brick house. Arms tearing trees from roots and bare feet grinding stones to sand as he walked up to Cain and, taking him by the shoulders, shook him like a rattle. Because God sees all—animals stuck in cages and brothers struck with rocks—so, “Cain!” he called. “Cain, what have you done?” With a voice made of gravel and dirt and broken glass. And Cain trembled. “Cain, speak up. What did you do?” From his toes, through his knees, up his spine—like smoke, like vines, as though weevils were chewing holes through his bones. Cain trembled.

A story about new stories told in a city built on stilts. Musicians, and poets, and women by the river plucking scales from fish like petals from daisies. Because “St. Benedictine was black,” wrote the chocuano poet Manuel Saturio Valencia, “And in the Holy Scripture / I have never seen / a single word writ in white ink.”

And as God shook him, Cain’s organs came loose inside him and rattled like stones in a tin can. He felt himself shrink in God’s grasp and he trembled until the color fell right off of his skin—off of Cain’s face, off of his arms, off of his belly, and off of his once black back—until Cain was as white as the underbelly of a pupa, as pale as newborn snakes, as blank as the beginning before the beginning, before the Word, before Cain.

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* This is an adaptation of a story titled “The Father of the White Nation,” as told in El Chocó, Colombia. An earlier version of this essay was published in The Baltimore Review.

Lina M. Ferreira C.-V.

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Bios

Lina M. Ferreira C.-V.

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Lina M. Ferreira C.-V.

Lina M. Ferreira C.-V. (100 Refutations translator and editor) earned MFAs in creative nonfiction writing and literary translation from The University of Iowa. She is the author of Drown Sever Sing from Anomalous Press and Don’t Come Back from Mad River Books, as well as editor, with Sarah Viren, of the forthcoming anthology Essaying the Americas. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and translation work has been featured in journals including Bellingham ReviewChicago ReviewFourth GenreBrevityPoets & Writers, and The Sunday Rumpus, among others. She won Best of the Net and Iron Horse Review’s Discovered Voices Award, has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and is a Rona Jaffe fellow. She moved from Colombia to China to Columbus, Ohio to Richmond, Virginia, where she works as an assistant professor for Virginia Commonwealth University. Visit www.linawritesessays.com. ******************************************************************** Amanda Dambrink (100 Refutations co-editor) works as an editor for the University of Wisconsin's Continuing Education, Outreach & E-Learning program in Madison, Wisconsin. She also holds an MA in creative nonfiction from Ohio University, and her previous work has appeared in Prairie Margins and The Normal School, among others.

Copyright (c) Lina M. Ferreira C.-V., 2018.